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Common Misconceptions About Lyme Disease

Published:January 14, 2013DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2012.10.008

      Abstract

      Lyme disease, infection with Borrelia burgdorferi, is a focally endemic tick-transmitted zoonosis. During the 3 decades since the responsible spirochete was identified, a series of misconceptions and misunderstandings have become widely prevalent, leading to frequent misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment. Persistent misconceptions concern the reliability of available diagnostic tools, the signs and symptoms of nervous system involvement, the appropriate choice and duration of antimicrobial therapy, the curability of the infection, and the cause of symptoms that may persist in some patients after treatment. Concern about disparate perspectives led the Institute of Medicine to review the subject. In this article we review the principal misconceptions, discussing their origins and the best currently available scientific evidence related to each one.

      Keywords

      Human infection with Borrelia burgdorferi, a spirochete transmitted by Ixodes ticks, results in the disorder known as Lyme disease or Lyme borreliosis, the most commonly reported vector-borne infection in the US. Incidence has increased with the geographic spread of infected ticks. A great deal is now understood about this infection's clinical phenomenology and treatment; yet a number of misconceptions (Table) continue to cause confusion among practitioners and patients—misconceptions that build on each other and are self reinforcing. As pointed out in a recent Institute of Medicine report,
      • King J.K.
      • Gerber N.L.
      • Ostroff S.M.
      • Palmer G.H.
      • Schutze G.E.
      • Walker D.H.
      Critical Needs and Gaps in Understanding Prevention, Amelioration, and Resolution of Lyme and Other Tick-Borne Diseases: The Short-Term and Long-Term Outcomes Workshop Report.
      “… . strong emotions, mistrust, and a game of blaming others who are not aligned with one's views” have resulted in a heated and politicized debate. A number of factors have contributed to this “debate”—perhaps not the least of which is a tension between the concept of evidence-based medicine and medicine's historical inductive approach from anecdotal observation. This tension is reflected in 2 frequently repeated, interrelated assertions—that laboratory testing for Lyme disease is unreliable and that the disease should be defined “clinically”—meaning syndromically.
      • A measurable antibody response requires several weeks to develop, commonly persists after successful treatment, and is not prevented by noncurative therapy.
      • Immunoglobulin (Ig)G rather than IgM Western blots should be used after 1-2 months of illness.
      • No clinical manifestation except erythema migrans allows diagnosis without laboratory confirmation.
      • Two to 4 weeks of oral antibiotics usually suffices, with parenteral antimicrobials reserved for severe involvement.
      • Lyme encephalopathy is not evidence of brain infection.
      TableCommon Misconceptions Related to Lyme Disease
      MisconceptionEvidence
      Serologic tests
       False negatives“Blood tests are unreliable with many negatives in patients who really have Lyme disease”Just as with all antibody-based testing, these are often negative very early before the antibody response develops (<4-6 weeks). They are rarely if ever negative in later disease
       Isolated IgM seropositivity“Patients with many months of symptoms may have only a positive IgM Western blot”Because the IgG response develops in 4-6 weeks, patients with symptoms of longer duration than this should be IgG positive; isolated IgM bands in such patients are almost always a false+
       Seropositivity after treatment“Positive blood tests after treatment mean more treatment is needed”After any infection resolves, the immune system continues to produce specific antibodies for an extended period. This is not an indication of persistent infection
       Antibiotics effect on serologic tests“Antibiotics make blood tests negative during treatment”There is no evidence that this happens and no biologic reason it would
       The clinical diagnosis of Lyme disease“Lyme disease is a clinical diagnosis that should be made based on a list of symptoms”No clinical features, except erythema migrans or possibly bilateral facial nerve palsy—in the appropriate context—provide sufficient specificity or positive predictive value. Laboratory confirmation is essential except with erythema migrans
       Persisting fatigue & cognitive symptoms in isolation as evidence of brain infection“Patients with fatigue and memory difficulties have Borrelia burgdorferi infection of the brain”These symptoms are not specific for B. burgdorferi infection and only rarely are evidence of a brain disorder.
       Severity of Lyme diseaseB. burgdorferi infection is potentially lethal”Although Lyme disease can cause heart or brain abnormalities, there have been remarkably few—if any—deaths attributable to this infection
       Prolonged treatment“If, following treatment, symptoms persist, or serologic testing remains positive, additional treatment is required”Multiple well-performed studies demonstrate that recommended treatment courses cure this infection. Retreatment is necessary occasionally, but not frequently
       Symptomatic improvement on antibiotics as validation of the diagnosis“Rapid symptomatic improvement on treatment proves the diagnosis despite negative blood tests”Non-microbicidal effects of antibiotics may result in symptomatic improvement. In controlled trials, 1 patient in 3 improved in response to placebo.
      Ig=immunoglobulin.
      Both derive from decades-old observations. What we now consider to be Lyme disease was indeed initially defined clinically in Europe as Garin-Bujadoux-Bannwarth syndrome
      • Garin C.
      • Bujadoux A.
      Paralysie par les tiques.
      and in the US as Lyme arthritis.
      • Steere A.C.
      • Malawista S.E.
      • Hardin J.A.
      • Ruddy S.
      • Askenase W.
      • Andiman W.A.
      Erythema chronicum migrans and Lyme arthritis The enlarging clinical spectrum.
      The subsequent identification of the causative organism and development of reliable serologic testing allowed these “clinical diagnoses” to be supplanted by biologically based criteria. However, some have continued to argue that the diagnosis should rest principally on the recognition of particular clinical phenomena. The difficulty with syndromic definitions is that they typically lack biologic precision. Failure to respond to recommended antimicrobial therapy in a patient “clinically diagnosed” as having Lyme disease could be due to either misdiagnosis or treatment failure. If laboratory testing is not considered a valid indicator of infection, and if lack of a response to recommended treatment is interpreted as evidence that the infection presumed to be present is resistant to that treatment rather than of an incorrect diagnosis, the list of clinical disorders attributable to the infection, and therefore the syndromic definition, can be expanded unconstrained by objective evidence.

      Diagnosis: Are Serologic Tests for Lyme Disease Reliable?

      Underlying the assertion of the purported unreliability of serologic testing are observations that some patients with Lyme disease do indeed have negative serologic tests. However, in large part these observations merely reflect the normal evolution of the antibody response. In all infections in which there is a humoral antibody response, there is a lag between the onset of infection and the time at which detectable levels of serum antibodies are first demonstrable. Consequently, many patients with early Lyme disease are seronegative.
      • Aguero-Rosenfeld M.E.
      • Nowakowski J.
      • Bittker S.
      • Cooper D.
      • Nadelman R.B.
      • Wormser G.P.
      Evolution of the serologic response to Borrelia burgdorferi in treated patients with culture-confirmed erythema migrans.
      However, the vast majority of such patients have a characteristic skin lesion called erythema migrans, the consequence of early cutaneous B. burgdorferi infection at the site of the tick bite. Because the appearance of erythema migrans is considered sufficiently diagnostic, no laboratory diagnostic testing of any sort is recommended or needed.
      • Wormser G.P.
      • Dattwyler R.J.
      • Shapiro E.D.
      • et al.
      The clinical assessment, treatment, and prevention of Lyme disease, human granulocytic anaplasmosis, and babesiosis: clinical practice guidelines by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
      Although patients with very early Lyme disease may be seronegative, seronegativity occurs rarely—if ever—in individuals with later manifestations or chronic symptoms of B. burgdorferi infection. The diagnosis of, and antibiotic treatment for, Lyme disease can rarely be justified in seronegative patients with symptoms of a month's or more duration. Often cited in support of the concept of late seronegativity is a 1988 report
      • Dattwyler R.J.
      • Volkman D.J.
      • Luft B.J.
      • Halperin J.J.
      • Thomas J.
      • Golightly M.G.
      Seronegative Lyme disease Dissociation of specific T- and B-lymphocyte responses to Borrelia burgdorferi.
      in which 17 patients—12 of whom had arthritis—were thought to have seronegative late Lyme disease. In this study, the diagnosis was based on clinical presentation, response to antimicrobial therapy, and results of a T-cell proliferative assay to B. burgdorferi. All 17 patients had previously been treated for early Lyme disease with tetracycline, penicillin, or erythromycin—drugs not currently recommended as first-line therapy in the US, but expected to be effective. It was hypothesized that these patients had become seronegative as a result of partial treatment. The results of this study have never been replicated and in fact, patients with active late Lyme arthritis are now known to be invariably immunoglobulin G (IgG) seropositive for antibodies to B. burgdorferi.
      • Kannian P.
      • McHugh G.
      • Johnson B.J.
      • Bacon R.M.
      • Glickstein L.J.
      • Steere A.C.
      Antibody responses to Borrelia burgdorferi in patients with antibiotic-refractory, antibiotic-responsive, or non-antibiotic-treated Lyme arthritis.
      • Steere A.C.
      • McHugh G.
      • Damle N.
      • Sikand V.K.
      Prospective study of serologic tests for Lyme disease.
      In retrospect, this early report was flawed for multiple reasons. The T-cell proliferative assay used was later shown to be nonspecific; in one study the false positivity rate was over 60%.
      • Zoschke D.C.
      • Skemp A.A.
      • Defosse D.L.
      Lymphoproliferative responses to Borrelia burgdorferi in Lyme disease.
      Although the patients may have had early Lyme disease previously, there was no laboratory evidence to confirm the presence of infection at the time of enrollment. Although the patients appeared to respond to parenteral antibiotics, treatment was given and responses assessed largely in an unblinded fashion, without a control group, making the results difficult to interpret. Finally, it is not even clear that all of the patients in the study would have been seronegative using currently used serological assays. It is theoretically possible that with current 2-tier testing, which uses higher-sensitivity enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) followed by standardized Western blots to confer specificity, some might have been seropositive.
      Studies of partial, noncurative treatment of rabbits experimentally infected with Treponema pallidum (syphilis being another spirochetal infection often likened to Lyme disease) provide supporting evidence against the conclusion that partial treatment might abrogate the antibody response. Rabbits that received penicillin during the incubation phase of infection
      • Hollander D.H.
      • Turner T.B.
      • Nell E.E.
      The effect of long continued subcurative doses of penicillin during the incubation period of experimental syphilis.
      were “either cured or subsequently developed clinically recognizable lesions.” Single subcurative doses of penicillin prolonged the “incubation period of experimental syphilis, up to a limit of 30-40 days”; however, when lesions developed, all of the animals became seropositive.
      In sum, although there is ample evidence that seronegative early Lyme disease is not uncommon, the evidence of seronegative late Lyme disease is unconvincing and the concept lacks biologic plausibility.

      Does Antibiotic Therapy Affect Seropositivity for Lyme Disease During Treatment?

      An often-voiced concern is that positive serologic tests for B. burgdorferi may become transiently negative during—and because of—antibiotic therapy. There is no precedent in the scientific literature—with respect to Lyme disease or any other identified infection—of noncurative antibiotic treatment transiently suppressing an already-existing antibody response, nor is there a plausible biologic explanation of why this might occur. In patients receiving early, effective treatment for culture-confirmed erythema migrans, the majority still seroconverted.
      • Nowakowski J.
      • Schwartz I.
      • Liveris D.
      • et al.
      Laboratory diagnostic techniques for patients with early Lyme disease associated with erythema migrans: a comparison of different techniques.
      Those who remained seronegative clearly had been treated and cured of Lyme disease before a measurable antibody response had developed.

      Is Persistent Seropositivity Following Treatment Significant?

      Strongly IgG or immunoglobulin M (IgM) seropositive patients may remain seropositive—and even cerebrospinal fluid-positive—for decades
      • Kalish R.A.
      • McHugh G.
      • Granquist J.
      • Shea B.
      • Ruthazer R.
      • Steere A.C.
      Persistence of immunoglobulin M or immunoglobulin G antibody responses to Borrelia burgdorferi 10-20 years after active Lyme disease.
      • Hammers Berggren S.
      • Hansen K.
      • Lebech A.M.
      • Karlsson M.
      Borrelia burgdorferi-specific intrathecal antibody production in neuroborreliosis: a follow-up study.
      despite resolution of the clinical manifestation of Lyme disease for which they were treated. When serially collected serum samples are tested in parallel, a gradual decline in antibody levels is usually observed in treated seropositive patients.
      • Kannian P.
      • McHugh G.
      • Johnson B.J.
      • Bacon R.M.
      • Glickstein L.J.
      • Steere A.C.
      Antibody responses to Borrelia burgdorferi in patients with antibiotic-refractory, antibiotic-responsive, or non-antibiotic-treated Lyme arthritis.
      Conversely, patients with ongoing infection can develop increasing antibody levels with increasing numbers of bands on Western blots.
      • Steere A.C.
      • McHugh G.
      • Damle N.
      • Sikand V.K.
      Prospective study of serologic tests for Lyme disease.
      • Craft J.E.
      • Grodzicki R.L.
      • Shrestha M.
      • Fischer D.K.
      • Garcia-Blanco M.
      • Steere A.C.
      The antibody response in Lyme disease.
      However, this requires that samples be saved over time to permit such parallel testing, something that is not practical in usual clinical practice.
      This normal persistence of the humoral immune response is sometimes misconstrued as evidence of persistent infection. Such a conclusion is biologically illogical, unsupported by scientific evidence, and without precedent in other infections. Unfortunately, this conclusion can lead to unnecessary retreatment, even to the point of advocating treating until the antibody response disappears. This misconception may have evolved from the concept of treating syphilis until the titer of nonspecific reaginic antibodies decreases—a humoral response entirely different from the specific antibody response measured by Lyme disease serologies. Specific serologic tests such as these cannot be used as a test of cure. Interest in the development of tests for active B. burgdorferi infection has intensified in part because rates of persistent background seropositivity can be considerable in high-risk older populations, especially in Europe.
      • Cetin E.
      • Sotoudeh M.
      • Auer H.
      • Stanek G.
      Paradigm Burgenland: risk of Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato infection indicated by variable seroprevalence rates in hunters.
      Because of this, an important clinical question that always needs to be addressed is whether the patient's clinical symptoms and signs are coincidentally or causally related to seropositivity.

      Is Isolated IgM Seropositivity Significant in Longstanding Infection?

      Currently recommended 2-tier serologic testing for Lyme disease includes testing all first-tier (usually ELISA) reactive patients by separate IgM and IgG immunoblots.
      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
      Recommendations for test performance and interpretation from the Second National Conference on Serologic Diagnosis of Lyme Disease.
      The IgM immunoblot should be used only for the diagnosis of early infection. In infections, the host immune system initially produces IgM antibodies; IgG antibodies are usually demonstrable by about 4 weeks after onset of B. burgdorferi infection. False-positive IgM immunoblots are common in clinical practice
      • Seriburi V.
      • Ndukwe N.
      • Chang Z.
      • Cox M.E.
      • Wormser G.P.
      High frequency of false positive IgM immunoblots for Borrelia burgdorferi in clinical practice.
      and appear to reflect both over-reading of weak bands (of which only 2 are required by IgM interpretation criteria) and the greater cross-reactivity and binding strength of IgM antibodies. Consequently, only the IgG immunoblot is recommended in patients with possible later Lyme disease or in patients ill for >4 weeks. A positive IgM immunoblot without a positive IgG immunoblot well beyond 4 weeks after exposure is more likely to be a false-positive result than an indication of B. burgdorferi infection.

      Should Lyme Disease be Primarily a “Clinical Diagnosis”?

      Before the development of reliable laboratory testing, diagnosis of what is now known to be B. burgdorferi infection was based on clinical phenomenology. The development of reliable laboratory testing now provides a far more accurate means of diagnosis in all but a small number of well-defined circumstances—accuracy that can be described quantitatively in terms of those tests' positive predictive value
      • Tugwell P.
      • Dennis D.T.
      • Weinstein A.
      • et al.
      Laboratory evaluation in the diagnosis of Lyme disease.
      (defined as the probability that a patient who has a positive test result truly has Lyme borreliosis). Any assertion that a particular clinical syndrome provides more accurate diagnostic support for the diagnosis of Lyme disease can be similarly tested by determining its positive predictive value. For example, in the appropriate context (an endemic area in warmer months), erythema migrans is essentially pathognomonic—that is, there are no false positives, so the positive predictive value (true positives/[true positives+false positives]) would be nearly 1.0.
      Extracutaneous manifestations of Lyme disease, however, are far less specific. Facial nerve palsy, for example, is considered one of the more common clinical manifestations. The annual incidence of Bell's palsy (idiopathic facial nerve palsy)
      • Ronthal M.
      Bell's palsy: pathogenesis, clinical features, and diagnosis in adults.
      is estimated at 23/100,000; about 1% of cases are bilateral (0.23/100,000). There are approximately 30,000 cases of Lyme disease annually in the US (10/100,000); about 8% have facial nerve palsy,
      • Bacon R.M.
      • Kugeler K.J.
      • Griffith K.S.
      • Mead P.S.
      Lyme Disease—United States, 2003–2005.
      of which about 25% are bilateral (0.2/100,000).
      • Clark J.R.
      • Carlson R.D.
      • Sasaki C.T.
      • Pachner A.R.
      • Steere A.C.
      Facial paralysis in Lyme disease.
      Hence the positive predictive value of bilateral facial nerve palsy would be about 46% (0.2/[0.23+0.2]). In highly endemic areas, where Lyme disease incidence can reach 300/100,000, the number of patients with Lyme disease-related unilateral facial nerve palsies might be expected to reach 24/100,000, equal to the background rate of Bell's palsy—that is, the positive predictive value of a unilateral facial nerve palsy would still be only 50%, mandating the use of a confirmatory laboratory test before treatment. Only in the case of bilateral palsies, of which 6 cases/100,000 might be due to Lyme disease but only 0.23 to Bell's palsy—with similarly low numbers attributable to other disorders such as sarcoidosis (neurosarcoidosis incidence approximately 0.2/100,000
      • Terushkin V.
      • Stern B.J.
      • Judson M.A.
      • et al.
      Neurosarcoidosis: presentations and management.
      ) or Guillain-Barré syndrome (overall incidence approximately 1/100,000
      • Prothro C.
      • Kudish K.
      • Fiellin M.
      • et al.
      Preliminary results: surveillance for Guillain-Barré syndrome after receipt of influenza A (H1N1) 2009 monovalent vaccine—United States, 2009–2010.
      ) limited to the facial musculature—might this finding be considered diagnostic (96% of cases being Lyme disease related), although confirmatory laboratory testing would still be reasonable, depending on the potential risks of treatment.
      Other signs or symptoms seen in Lyme disease—such as radicular pain without a mechanical cause, lymphocytic meningitis, relapsing large joint oligoarthritis, and heart block in an otherwise healthy young individual—could be due to Lyme disease if there has been potential tick exposure in an endemic area. However, given the lower relative frequencies of these disorders in Lyme disease, and their substantial background prevalence due to other causes, laboratory confirmation is essential.
      At the other end of the spectrum are many common and highly nonspecific symptoms, such as fatigue, malaise, headaches, diffuse aches and pains, and cognitive slowing, that are common to virtually all inflammatory—and many other—disorders. Perceived cognitive difficulty is a symptom frequently cited as a reason to be concerned about Lyme disease.
      • Cameron D.
      • Gaito A.
      • Harris N.
      • et al.
      ILADS Working Group
      Evidence-based guidelines for the management of Lyme disease.
      However, severe cognitive difficulties are reported by about 2% of the US population,
      • Luo N.
      • Johnson J.
      • Shaw J.
      • Feeny D.
      • Coons S.
      Self-reported health status of the general adult U.S. population as assessed by the EQ-5D and Health Utilities Index.
      with less severe difficulties in many more. The positive predictive value of this symptom as a diagnostic feature of Lyme disease can be calculated just as in facial nerve palsies. To provide the benefit of the doubt to the proponents of using this symptom to diagnose Lyme disease, the calculation can be biased to maximize its potential impact by adopting several of their assumptions. First, assume that the incidence of Lyme disease is actually 10 times that reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (despite the absence of any compelling evidence to that effect). Second, assume that half of all patients with Lyme disease develop severe cognitive difficulty, also probably a substantial overestimate. This would lead to an estimated incidence of Lyme disease-associated severe cognitive difficulty of 150 cases/100,000 population. Compared with a background prevalence of 2%, or 2000 cases/100,000, the positive predictive value of this finding would be <8%. This number clearly could never justify treatment in the absence of more specific evidence, such as laboratory confirmation. Applying the CDC-reported incidence of Lyme disease to the calculation for this symptom would lower the positive predictive value to <1%. Clearly, diagnosing Lyme disease based on even less specific clinical findings is unsupportable.

      Is Persistent Fatigue and Perceived Memory and Cognitive Difficulty Evidence of Brain Infection Due to B. Burgdorferi?

      An estimated 10%-15% of patients with B. burgdorferi infection develop central nervous system involvement.
      • Halperin J.
      • Logigian E.
      • Finkel M.
      • Pearl R.
      Practice parameter for the diagnosis of patients with nervous system Lyme borreliosis (Lyme disease).
      This most often consists of meningitis; rarely, there are clinically evident focal findings. As with all central nervous system infections, there is almost always supporting laboratory evidence (ie, imaging or cerebrospinal fluid abnormalities) of both the infection and nervous system involvement.
      • Halperin J.J.
      Nervous system involvement.
      Some patients with Lyme disease—who have other signs and symptoms of active infection—develop fatigue, memory and cognitive difficulty, often termed Lyme encephalopathy. No clear data are available to estimate its incidence; anecdotally it appears to occur rarely in isolation and in only a minority of individuals with other manifestations of Lyme disease.
      • Halperin J.J.
      • Krupp L.B.
      • Golightly M.G.
      • Volkman D.J.
      Lyme borreliosis-associated encephalopathy.
      • Logigian E.L.
      • Kaplan R.F.
      • Steere A.C.
      Successful treatment of Lyme encephalopathy with intravenous ceftriaxone.
      Importantly, Lyme encephalopathy is not synonymous with central nervous system infection—in fact, such patients rarely if ever have any evidence of this.
      • Halperin J.J.
      Nervous system involvement.
      Rather, patients with symptomatic B. burgdorferi infection outside the central nervous system may experience the same cognitive and memory problems seen in patients with urinary tract infections, bacterial pneumonia, active rheumatoid arthritis, or other active inflammatory states. This represents a metabolic encephalopathy—clinically indistinguishable from the cognitive difficulty described in over 2% of the general population—most likely due to the neuroactive effects of soluble immunomodulators.
      • Halperin J.J.
      • Krupp L.B.
      • Golightly M.G.
      • Volkman D.J.
      Lyme borreliosis-associated encephalopathy.
      • Halperin J.J.
      • Heyes M.P.
      Neuroactive kynurenines in Lyme borreliosis.
      Misattribution of these symptoms to central nervous system infection is terrifying to patients and intimidating to physicians; it has contributed greatly to the overall anxiety and confusion about this disease.
      Finally, although there are case reports of patients with Lyme disease developing a broad range of psychiatric disorders, no epidemiologic study has ever demonstrated a statistically meaningful association between Lyme disease and psychiatric disease beyond that noted with other systemic diseases, or of a unique psychiatric presentation of Lyme disease. No biologically plausible mechanism for such an association has ever been proposed.

      Lyme Disease—Can it be Lethal?

      A few case reports suggest that Lyme carditis might have contributed to a patient's death.
      • Marcus L.C.
      • Steere A.C.
      • Duray P.H.
      Fatal pancarditis in a patient with coexisting Lyme disease and babesiosis.
      • Lamaison D.
      Cardiac involvement in Lyme disease.
      • Tavora F.
      • Burke A.
      • Li L.
      • Franks T.J.
      • Virmani R.
      Postmortem confirmation of Lyme carditis with polymerase chain reaction.
      This question was formally examined as part of a review of 1999-2003 US death certificate data.
      • Kugeler K.J.
      • Griffith K.S.
      • Gould L.H.
      • et al.
      A review of death certificates listing Lyme disease as a cause of death in the United States.
      Lyme disease was a listed diagnosis on 119 of the reviewed death certificates. Among these, only one patient had symptoms consistent with Lyme disease. If this one patient actually died because of Lyme disease, a comparison to the reported Lyme disease incidence data during the same period would suggest a mortality rate of approximately 1/100,000 cases. Certainly, in any disease with such extraordinarily low suspected mortality, a causal relationship must be highly suspect.

      Is There a Rationale for Longer Treatment Courses?

      Numerous studies have now shown that Lyme disease can be effectively treated with fairly short courses of recommended antibiotics.
      • Wormser G.P.
      • Dattwyler R.J.
      • Shapiro E.D.
      • et al.
      The clinical assessment, treatment, and prevention of Lyme disease, human granulocytic anaplasmosis, and babesiosis: clinical practice guidelines by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
      Controlled treatment trials have repeatedly demonstrated that more prolonged antibiotic treatment results in no lasting benefit,
      • Wormser G.P.
      • Dattwyler R.J.
      • Shapiro E.D.
      • et al.
      The clinical assessment, treatment, and prevention of Lyme disease, human granulocytic anaplasmosis, and babesiosis: clinical practice guidelines by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
      • Oksi J.
      • Nikoskelainen J.
      • Hiekkanen H.
      • et al.
      Duration of antibiotic treatment in disseminated Lyme borreliosis: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter clinical study.
      • Klempner M.S.
      • Hu L.T.
      • Evans J.
      • et al.
      Two controlled trials of antibiotic treatment in patients with persistent symptoms and a history of Lyme disease.
      • Krupp L.B.
      • Hyman L.G.
      • Grimson R.
      • et al.
      Study and treatment of post Lyme disease (STOP-LD): a randomized double masked clinical trial.
      but significantly increases risk. The treatment durations recommended for Lyme disease are consistent with those for syphilis and most other bacterial infections.
      • Jay C.A.
      Treatment of neurosyphilis.
      The argument for extended antibiotic therapy arises from 3 sets of observations. As with many infections, some of a patient's objective clinical symptoms may continue long after the infection has been cured microbiologically. If a patient has facial nerve palsy, time is required for the nerve to recover from the damage that has occurred. An inflamed knee may continue to be painful and swollen for months to years post treatment, even after B. burgdorferi can no longer be detected in synovial tissue or fluid by polymerase chain reaction.
      • Steere A.C.
      Diagnosis and treatment of Lyme arthritis.
      Second, analogous to some other infections such as bacterial pneumonia or viral meningitis, purely subjective complaints such as fatigue may sometimes continue for weeks to months after successful treatment. As has been suggested over the years with a number of other infections,
      • Galbraith S.
      • Cameron B.
      • Li H.
      • Lau D.
      • Vollmer-Conna U.
      • Lloyd A.R.
      Peripheral blood gene expression in postinfective fatigue syndrome following from three different triggering infections.
      in some patients these difficulties have been apparent for years after treatment. No prospective study has addressed whether the frequency of such symptoms at 6 months is any greater in US patients treated for Lyme disease than in controls, although the difficulty identifying patients to enroll in studies of post Lyme disease syndrome
      • Fallon B.A.
      • Keilp J.G.
      • Corbera K.M.
      • et al.
      A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of repeated IV antibiotic therapy for Lyme encephalopathy.
      suggests a frequency approximating the previously quoted 2%. It should be noted that carefully performed microbiologic evaluations have failed to provide evidence of B. burgdorferi infection in treated patients with subjective symptoms lasting >6 months, including studies that have focused on occult central nervous system infection.
      • Krupp L.B.
      • Hyman L.G.
      • Grimson R.
      • et al.
      Study and treatment of post Lyme disease (STOP-LD): a randomized double masked clinical trial.
      • Fallon B.A.
      • Keilp J.G.
      • Corbera K.M.
      • et al.
      A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of repeated IV antibiotic therapy for Lyme encephalopathy.
      • Klempner M.S.
      Controlled trials of antibiotic treatment in patients with post-treatment chronic Lyme disease.
      • Kaplan R.F.
      • Trevino R.P.
      • Johnson G.M.
      • et al.
      Cognitive function in post-treatment Lyme disease: do additional antibiotics help?.
      Randomized, placebo-controlled retreatment trials in persistently symptomatic patients have clearly shown that additional antibiotic therapy fails to provide meaningful benefit to previously treated individuals.
      • Klempner M.S.
      • Hu L.T.
      • Evans J.
      • et al.
      Two controlled trials of antibiotic treatment in patients with persistent symptoms and a history of Lyme disease.
      • Krupp L.B.
      • Hyman L.G.
      • Grimson R.
      • et al.
      Study and treatment of post Lyme disease (STOP-LD): a randomized double masked clinical trial.
      • Fallon B.A.
      • Keilp J.G.
      • Corbera K.M.
      • et al.
      A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of repeated IV antibiotic therapy for Lyme encephalopathy.
      It has been suggested that post-treatment symptoms might be due to small numbers of residual spirochetes. While small numbers of organisms might remain following usually recommended treatment,
      • Embers M.E.
      • Barthold S.W.
      • Borda J.T.
      • et al.
      Persistence of Borrelia burgdorferi in rhesus macaques following antibiotic treatment of disseminated infection.
      there is no evidence these cause symptoms or elicit a host response. Some suggest that spirochetes might remain concealed in immunologically protected sites—possibly in altered forms such as cysts or in biofilms. Even if there were evidence to indicate clinical relevance of this conjecture, it would remain challenging to provide a pathophysiologic explanation of how this might cause symptoms. On the one hand, the argument presumes there is no inflammatory response to these hidden—and yet to be demonstrated in vivo—organisms. Thus, the symptoms could not be due to the soluble neuroimmunomodulators presumed responsible for encephalopathies in other inflammatory disorders. On the other hand, there is no evidence that B. burgdorferi can elaborate an exotoxin
      • Fraser C.M.
      • Casjens S.
      • Huang W.M.
      • et al.
      Genomic sequence of a Lyme disease spirochaete, Borrelia burgdorferi.
      that might elicit such symptoms. In contrast, there is ample precedent for asymptomatic latent infections, as illustrated by the persistence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis in one third of the world's population.
      Finally, given the misconceptions about how to diagnose Lyme disease, it is likely that in at least some patients, symptoms fail to respond because they are not due to B. burgdorferi infection. Proponents of prolonged treatment have created a self-reinforcing logical construct. If patients improve after prolonged treatment, this is taken as validation of the diagnosis, disregarding any potential for a placebo response that occurs in about one third of patients given placebo in Lyme disease treatment trials.
      • Klempner M.S.
      • Hu L.T.
      • Evans J.
      • et al.
      Two controlled trials of antibiotic treatment in patients with persistent symptoms and a history of Lyme disease.
      If the patient's condition does not improve, this is interpreted as evidence that the infection is treatment resistant. If the patient worsens, this is interpreted as a Herxheimer reaction—regardless of when in the course of treatment this occurs. This explanation seems particularly difficult to understand given that a Herxheimer reaction is generally thought to occur with initiation of treatment when a large number of spirochetes die simultaneously. If these patients are believed to harbor only a small number of organisms, it is difficult to understand how this might occur. However, if the diagnosis is made syndromically with no reliable laboratory confirmation, and any of the 3 possible treatment responses is viewed as validating the diagnosis, it is readily apparent how some patients may find themselves treated for an extended period of time for no logical reason.

      Does Symptomatic Improvement While on Antibiotic Therapy Confirm the Diagnosis of Lyme Disease?

      When patients rapidly feel better while taking antibiotics, they often assume that this proves that they did indeed have B. burgdorferi infection, regardless of whether or not the initial evidence of Lyme disease was compelling. However, at least 3 other factors may contribute to such symptomatic improvement. First, other infections, if present, can respond to the same antimicrobials. Second, in blinded, placebo-controlled trials of patients with persisting symptoms, improvement occurred in up to one third of placebo-receiving individuals.
      • Klempner M.S.
      • Hu L.T.
      • Evans J.
      • et al.
      Two controlled trials of antibiotic treatment in patients with persistent symptoms and a history of Lyme disease.
      Third, many of the antimicrobials used have other important pharmacologic actions. Tetracyclines, for example, have a broad range of anti-inflammatory actions including inhibiting matrix metalloproteinases.
      • Bench T.J.
      • Jeremias A.
      • Brown D.L.
      Matrix metalloproteinase inhibition with tetracyclines for the treatment of coronary artery disease.
      • Leite L.M.
      • Carvalho A.G.
      • Ferreira P.L.
      • et al.
      Anti-inflammatory properties of doxycycline and minocycline in experimental models: an in vivo and in vitro comparative study.
      They can also directly alter neurophysiologic activity, and modulate neuronal function
      • Drouin-Ouellet J.
      • Brownell A.L.
      • Saint-Pierre M.
      • et al.
      Neuroinflammation is associated with changes in glial mGluR5 expression and the development of neonatal excitotoxic lesions.
      • Kim T.H.
      • Kim H.I.
      • Kim J.
      • Park M.
      • Song J.H.
      Effects of minocycline on Na+ currents in rat dorsal root ganglion neurons.
      • Wixey J.A.
      • Reinebrant H.E.
      • Buller K.M.
      Inhibition of neuroinflammation prevents injury to the serotonergic network after hypoxia-ischemia in the immature rat brain.
      including pain perception. Ceftriaxone upregulates the glutamate transporter in the central nervous system, decreasing concentrations of glutamate, an important neurotransmitter,
      • Rothstein J.D.
      • Patel S.
      • Regan M.R.
      • et al.
      Beta-lactam antibiotics offer neuroprotection by increasing glutamate transporter expression.
      • Lin Y.
      • Roman K.
      • Foust K.D.
      • Kaspar B.K.
      • Bailey M.T.
      • Stephens R.L.
      Glutamate transporter GLT-1 upregulation attenuates visceral nociception and hyperalgesia via spinal mechanisms not related to anti-inflammatory or probiotic effects.
      with resultant decreases in pain and other neurobehavioral symptoms. Consequently, just as persistent symptoms following appropriate therapy do not disprove the diagnosis, rapid relief of nonspecific or neurobehavioral symptoms does not prove it.

      Conclusion

      Lyme disease has been the source of considerable controversy, with the debate spilling over into political and other arenas. It is regrettable that this has detracted from a reasoned approach to the scientific evidence. The latter has advanced sufficiently over the past 2 decades that diagnosis and treatment of this infection are now generally quite straightforward. Legitimate biologic questions remain to be studied, with answers that may well be relevant in the study of other disorders. However, the existence of these remaining biologic questions does not negate the fact that the approach to diagnosis and treatment is now well defined, and that there is no reasonable basis for the broad range of unconventional and potentially dangerous therapeutic approaches that continue to be recommended by some.

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      Linked Article

      • Chronic Lyme Disease: Liberation from Lyme Denialism
        The American Journal of MedicineVol. 126Issue 8
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          The Review article by Halperin et al1 concerning Lyme disease “misconceptions” is the latest in a series of Lyme denialist attacks by members and supporters of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).1-4 This series of copycat opinion pieces is disturbing from both a scientific and political perspective because the articles frame the complex debate over chronic Lyme disease in terms of “evidence-based medicine” on the one hand, versus “antiscience” on the other. Furthermore, the latest Lyme denialist attacks appear to be a concerted effort to offset recent political action aimed at helping the scores of untreated, undertreated, and mistreated Lyme disease patients around the globe.
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      • Alternative Considerations for “Common Misconceptions About Lyme Disease”
        The American Journal of MedicineVol. 126Issue 8
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          Alternative considerations are presented for the article “Common Misconceptions About Lyme Disease.”1 Are serology tests for Lyme disease reliable? Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays may provide false-negative results not only because of the time delay for the patient's immune system to produce the antibodies but also because the various enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays are intrinsically unreliable.2
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